The Big Impact of Networking in Small Places

Type: Article
Topics: Leadership Development, Rural Communities, School Administrator Magazine

October 01, 2018

A difference maker for educators in rural communities

Danette Parsley
Bill Wadlington enjoys serving as a superintendent of a small, rural district in Washington state. One reason is that unlike many of his more urban and suburban counterparts, he gets to make connections with kids regularly.

“Every day, I get a hug from an elementary student and high fives from high school kids,” he says.

Wadlington, an educator for 36 years, also likes how working with such a small staff — the Columbia School District on the state’s border with Oregon has 13 classroom teachers — flattens the layers of leadership, meaning no task is out of the question. “If something goes wrong with the plumbing, you get a mop,” he says. “If we need a bus driver for a day, I’ll drive the bus.”

Because the schools are small and other schools are far away, it’s easy for school leaders, teachers and students in remote and rural districts to get the sense that they are dis-connected from the rest of the world. It’s one reason why collaboration across schools, districts and states — an approach that holds promise for educators everywhere — becomes an indispensable strategy for rural schools.

With online communication tools becoming more common and similar college- and career-ready standards now in place across districts and states, rural superintendents have more readily available opportunities than ever to encourage cross-district collaboration among their teachers and students. Collaboration, says Wadlington, a superintendent since 2007, is a central reason he remains dedicated to small schools during his lengthy career.

A Collaborative Call
The need for rural schools to collaborate is what spurred the formation of the Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement Network, or NW RISE, a professional community that brings together rural teachers and administrators from small and often remote communities, along with state education department staff, across five Pacific Northwest states to work and learn with “like me” colleagues.

When NW RISE members get together twice a year in face-to-face meetings, they spend much of their time working in job-alike groups. These groups include teachers from similar grade levels or content areas designing collaborative lessons and projects for their students back home.

Sarah Hatfield, who serves in dual roles as superintendent and K-6 principal in Idaho’s Highland Joint School District, recently attended her first NW RISE convening. She came in search of some ideas for instructional support, noting, “We don’t have a social studies department — we have one person who teaches social studies.” Hatfield came away excited to realize her teachers could use this network to collaborate with peers who teach in similar contexts through their job-alike groups. In fact, the NW RISE secondary science job-alike members now simply refer to themselves as “the science department.”

Other job-alike groups bring together rural superintendents and principals with a two-fold purpose. They want to create the conditions for teachers to collaborate effectively and to support each other’s leadership work at the site and district levels.

Creating Conditions
Teachers and administrators from small schools often go to state or regional trainings with educators from larger districts, which can be a mixed bag. “Rural teachers can feel that these types of networking opportunities don’t match their needs,” says Greg Alexander, who led Idaho’s 250-student Garden Valley School District as superintendent for the past three years. “They also feel that teachers from larger schools don’t understand the challenges posed by teaching in a small, isolated district.”

But it takes more than sending rural teachers to the same meeting room for a professional network to thrive. Rural superintendents can create a few conditions to make collaboration run more smoothly.

For Alexander, teacher collaboration must start with relationship building. He notes that teachers first need to build trust before they become comfortable sharing classroom practices with each other. And that requires investing in some good face-to-face time for teachers to get to know one another. Alexander also believes it is important to facilitate collaboration by promoting shared leadership across the staff and through the presence of teacher leaders. “You need buy-in from staff and a supportive board to make it all work,” he says.

The NW RISE superintendents ensure the good work that occurs at face-to-face meetings carries over to the teachers back home who are not directly involved with the network. Cody Fisher, whose wide-ranging roles in Glenns Ferry, Idaho, include superintendent, high school principal and federal program director, has been involved with NW RISE since the network began in 2014.

During that first year, Fisher noticed that some of his staff members who did not attend the face-to-face meetings were indifferent to their colleagues’ involvement in the network. Because of that, Fisher made sure during the network’s second year that his NW RISE team directly shared its experiences with the staff when they returned to the district, and he involved the full staff in what the network was learning.

Inspired Sharing
Sarah Hatfield, superintendent of Highland Joint School District in Craigmont, Idaho, and Bill Wadlington (right), superintendent of Columbia School District in Hunters, Wash., listen to Education Northwest’s Mike Siebersma at a NW RISE professional networking event in June in Portland, Ore.

For the collaborative benefits of a professional network such as NW RISE to take hold across a district, school leaders must be willing to be open to new ideas and to share ownership and responsibility for working through new ideas. It’s something Fisher exhibits in Glenns Ferry, a district with 430 students in the southwest corner of Idaho.

He has observed a ripple effect of the networking after his teachers pick up innovative ideas from other teachers. One example is a project called Ship the Chip, in which elementary students in two rural communities worked together to answer this question: What type of packaging can keep potato chips safe when transported through the mail? A Glenns Ferry teacher teamed up with a counterpart at a school in Washington to engage students in generating creative packaging ideas to ship potato chips through the mail to each other.

Fisher sees benefits beyond the creative problem-solving skills the students applied to the question. “The real learning is collaboration,” he says. “You have kids talking to kids and teachers talking to teachers.” Because Glenns Ferry is a small, isolated school community, teachers were able to see how fun and beneficial that project was, which subsequently inspired them to tackle other projects in their own classrooms.

NW RISE administrators use various technical strategies to smooth the way for effective collaboration. In Glenns Ferry, Fisher promotes coherence by aligning the school district’s annual professional development plan to the topics his teachers are planning to address.

To overcome the limited number of substitute teachers available in small communities that would free a larger number of teachers to participate in face-to-face collaborative opportunities, administrators often build NW RISE’s fall convening days into the school calendar as professional development days.

Perhaps the most supportive condition of all is showing up. When teachers see their administrators committed in a hands-on manner to the work of professional networking, they feel supported and can embrace new opportunities for collaboration with enthusiasm.

Working Together
When superintendents convene in their job-alike group (that also includes principals) during and between face-to-face NW RISE meetings, they collaborate on an array of projects to support each other’s work to increase student engagement.
Recent collaborations include these:

» Jointly examining the results from a common classroom walkthrough tool to gauge levels of student engagement;

» Devising better ways to provide teachers with performance feedback;

» Identifying students who are not participating in any school activities to target strategies for increasing individual student participation; and

» Sharing resources and strategies for increasing student leadership.

The superintendents also are leading the way in creating their own networking opportunities inspired by the NW RISE model of bringing together educators in similar roles from similar schools. For example, Alaska’s Lower Kuskokwim School District — consisting of 27 schools in 22 villages spread across an area the size of West Virginia — is replicating the NW RISE model for its schools in an affiliated network called LK RISE.

Likewise, NW RISE districts in Idaho have found success in teaming up to schedule teacher professional development on the same days so that they can bring together their full teaching staffs to participate in job-alike groups.

“This type of professional development links districts by choice, not proximity,” says Alexander, whose district has teamed up with two other Idaho districts for shared learning days with more planned in the future. “It’s a validation that we are alike.”

Fisher also sees the benefit of rural teachers working together in job-alike groups whether it’s through NW RISE or districts getting together on their own accord to make collaboration happen.

“The teachers build bonds with people facing the same challenges as themselves,” he says. “And it opens the door for us to improve what we are doing for our students.”